This is an excerpt from Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books by David Gaughran, friend of ALLi. Like its predecessor, Let's Get Digital, it's a great book. Not just useful. Essential.
Please note that, except where indicated, mentions of rankings and categories refer to the US Kindle Store.
If you understand how the category system works, you can give your book instant visibility on Amazon. Self-publishers are at a slight disadvantage here. They get to choose only two categories when uploading, whereas traditional publishers, depending on their arrangements with Amazon, can choose up to five.
However, many publishers don’t understand Amazon’s categories and fail to use the system to their advantage. They either don’t use all categories available to them or, without drilling down further, they choose something generic like Fiction, which is useless as a category unless you are at the very top of the Amazon rankings. Just choosing the right subcategory for your work can give your book a real head start.
There are a huge number of books in Fiction (over 750,000 at the time of writing). Competition is fierce, and appearing in the Top 100 of Fiction requires a tremendous number of sales, which will be beyond most mere mortals. However, choosing Fiction as a category is a waste for a much more simple reason: electing a subcategory of Fiction will get you into the Fiction category as well.
Even if you drill down several levels to choose something like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Political, your book will still show in all of the top-level categories above the one you have chosen (i.e. Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense; Thrillers). In other words, when you pick something more specific like that, you are multiplying your potential visibility opportunities rather than restricting them. If your book is doing particularly well, you will appear on a number of Top 100 lists, all of which will drive further sales.
By checking the ranking of the books in each subcategory, you will get an idea of how competitive each one is. Using the Rank to Sales Estimator in the back of the book, you can estimate whether your book would make the respective Top 100. Wherever possible, it’s wise to choose categories in which you can currently compete. Indeed, all other things being equal, it’s best to choose a category in which your book will appear on the first couple of pages.
Let me give you a concrete example. Let’s say you are a romance writer who normally sells 30 copies per day of a given title. You might have opted for Romance > Contemporary, as it seemed a good fit for your book. Romance > Contemporary currently requires a Sales Rank of #332 (or around 300 sales a day) to even hit the back of the respective Top 100. But if you opted for Romance > Inspirational instead, you would find the competition a little less tough. Qualifying for that Best Seller list requires (at the time of writing) a Sales Rank of #5,325 (or around 20 sales a day).
In the case of your book, which is selling 30 copies a day, you wouldn’t just hit the Top 100, you’d be sitting pretty at around #65 in the chart, gaining crucial extra eyeballs on your work.
The Popularity lists will give you an idea of how many books there are in each category. For example, there are currently 618,758 titles in Literature & Fiction but only 5,315 titles in Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > War. Going through the various categories can indicate the relative size of each genre and subgenre, and can also help you identify a category that might provide an easier path to visibility. Be warned, however, that a very small category might not receive a lot of reader traffic. If the lists are small and stagnant, readers may not return to be faced with the same books each time.
As a self-publisher, you have just two categories to play with. It can be a good approach to pick one competitive category that you occasionally qualify for, and one that is a little less competitive and enables you to always hit the Best Seller list. This way, you have a chance of front-page action in a smaller category, plus you’re covered if you have a good run of sales and start moving up the Best Seller list of a more frequently browsed category.
An example might help illustrate this point. If you have written a gritty crime novel set on an army base in Iraq, the obvious category choices might be Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Crime, and Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals. However, there are two weaknesses to this approach. First of all, they are both very competitive categories, requiring around 100 sales a day to hit even the front page of the Best Seller lists.
Second, they are both roots of the same top-level category: Mystery & Thrillers. Where possible, it is advantageous to opt for two distinct categories to maximize visibility, which is especially important when sales spike. You could keep Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers & Suspense > Crime, and choose something a little less competitive for the second.
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Action & Adventure requires around 200 sales a day to hit the front page of the Best Seller list but others are less demanding such as War (50 sales a day), and Men’s Adventure (40 sales a day). You should attempt to identify a number of such alternative categories for each title, which will give you options when the time comes to switch.
When sales improve and your numbers make you eligible for a Best Seller list in a more competitive category (which is invariably one browsed by more readers), you should go for it. If your sales dip, you can switch back to a less competitive category so that you at least have some visibility during a downturn. But waxing and waning sales aren’t the only reason to switch categories.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to seek out virgin territory. If you have had a run at the charts in your normal categories, or gained a lot of exposure from a successful free run, changing categories prior to a new promotion can introduce your work to a whole new group of readers.
Monique Martin uses this strategy regularly to great effect. Her Out of Time series could be classified as Time Travel Romance, Historical Fiction, Historical Romance, Historical Fantasy, Mystery, or even Romantic Suspense (as it has elements of each and obeys the respective genre conventions). She regularly switches categories from one to the other prior to a free run or an ad spot. This can negate the diminishing returns that writers can sometimes see after repeatedly hitting the same pool of readers. She even places different books in the series in different categories, widening her visibility footprint.
Not all books will easily slot into so many different categories. But if this option is open to you and your work, experiment with this approach. Just be careful that your book is a good fit for the categories you are playing with. You don’t want to incur the wrath of romance readers because your book doesn’t have a happily ever after.
Like virtually all e-book retailers, Amazon gives you numerous category choices when uploading your book or making changes. These are based on BISAC subject headings, which are industry standard. However, it’s extremely important to note that these don’t always reflect the actual categories in the Kindle Store.
While the system attempts to map your BISAC choice to a Kindle Store category, it doesn’t always work. This leads to the situation where you have:
Categories that appear only in Books (i.e. the print book listings and not in the Kindle Store itself);
International-only categories (for example, Medical Thriller was a category in the UK Kindle Store, but not in the US until Amazon recently added it);
Unique Kindle Store categories that are not selectable when uploading
This inexact mapping between the BISAC-inspired choices in the KDP interface and the actual categories in the Kindle Store creates both a problem and an opportunity.
The problem comes when you select a category that does not exist in the Kindle Store, like Fiction & Literature > Drama > Latin America—as I have done in the past. While it exists on the Book side, it doesn’t have a corresponding category in the Kindle Store. It’s essentially wasting a category choice. Before selecting your categories, you should ensure that your prospective choice actually exists in the Kindle Store itself. This is really important and I can’t stress it enough.
But there’s an opportunity here too. Those Kindle Store-only categories are sparsely populated as few authors or publishers have chosen them. As there are fewer books to compete with, you don’t need to sell very many books to appear in the charts; this gives crucial visibility opportunities to books that aren’t selling particularly well, or those that have just been released and haven’t built up a head of steam yet.
For example, Mystery & Thrillers is one of the most competitive categories in the Kindle Store, second only to Romance. Appearing on any Mystery & Thrillers list is a serious challenge that requires impressive sales—something that might be beyond most writers until they have several titles out and have built a dedicated following.
However, with a little poking around in the subcategories, you can identify some that don’t need very many sales at all. Technothriller is one, and Mystery > Series is another. Neither is selectable from the KDP interface, so there aren’t many books in either category. You only need Sales Rank of #26,483 to hit the Best Seller list for the former, and #27,586 for the latter (or around 5 sales a day), considerably fewer than in other Mystery & Thriller categories. If you explore the categories, you will find plenty more.
You might be wondering how to get into these categories if you can’t select them from the KDP dashboard. It’s pretty simple. First, you must select Non-Classifiable as one of your categories, and then you must email KDP through the dashboard with the full path of the category you wish to appear in (e.g. Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Mystery > Series).
Normally, this process is painless and only takes a couple of days. However, lately I’ve been hearing reports that KDP are pushing back on letting authors into certain categories (and, indeed, restricting further the choices available from the dashboard). The customer service representatives are mistaken here, and, judging by their replies, seem to be under the impression that authors are trying to gain access to certain controlled categories (such as Kindle Singles). If you get a confusing or incorrect response, you must persist. It may take multiple (frustrating) exchanges, but you will get it resolved eventually—and it’s worth it.
I raised this issue with Amazon representatives at the London Book Fair in April 2013. While they didn’t seem to be aware of the problem, they did promise to investigate. Hopefully, it will be resolved soon. I also impressed on them the need for further specific subcategories in certain genres, and I hope that progress will be made on that front too.
Before we move on, an earlier caveat must be repeated. It’s a bad idea to choose any category that isn’t a good fit for your work. The few readers who do download your book will probably be outside your target audience, and they will likely respond with poor reviews. Tread carefully. Nobody likes being hoodwinked.
In some cases, the above advice is no good because your target category has no subcategories. This can be extremely frustrating, and it’s a situation I face with my historical novel A Storm Hits Valparaiso.
The natural categories for that book are Historical Fiction and Literary Fiction. Unfortunately, however, neither of those categories have a subcategory. In the case of Historical Fiction, you tend to require a ranking of between #2,500 and #3,000 to even hit the back of the Best Seller list, which is around 40 to 50 sales a day. Literary Fiction is even more competitive, and you often need a Sales Rank of between #2,000 and #2,500 to qualify—around 50 to 55 sales a day. Given that A Storm Hits Valparaiso rarely sells at that level outside of a sale or promotion, I’m faced with a dilemma.
The logical course of action is to try alternative categories. But with a straight historical novel of a determined literary bent, options are thin on the ground. There’s War, which usually requires a Sales Rank of #10,000 to #12,000, or maybe 10 copies a day. And, at a stretch, there’s Men’s Adventure, which requires about the same. However, any time I’ve opted for these categories and was selling enough to appear high on the respective Best Seller lists, that visibility did little to drive sales. Why? Well, I only had to look at the books I was surrounded by in the chart. Readers of Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy are well outside my target market and are unlikely to be attracted to my work.
Unfortunately, this situation occurs a little more frequently than we would like. Our books aren’t selling enough to chart in our natural categories, and alternatives are too far removed from our core readership to really move the sales needle. It’s especially tough when your natural home is a category with no subcategories (where you can play in the smaller pool while you build your audience). What do you do in this situation?
Luckily, the Best Seller lists aren’t the only opportunities for visibility on Amazon. There are the Top Rated lists, Hot New Releases lists, Movers & Shakers, Popularity lists, Also Boughts, and Amazon search results. And we’ll cover each of these in turn.
Before you move on, however, I advise you to try to come to grips with the category system. It’s not something you’re likely to do on a first read, and it will take a little exploring around the Kindle Store (and getting a handle on what sales level is needed to hit certain ranks and certain genre Best Seller lists).
ALSO RECOMMENDED: This post from historical mystery author and ALLi member, M. Louisa Locke (though disregard information on tags as Amazon has changed this now)